One of the problems with “blogging” film festivals is that some movies need time and space to settle into one’s psyche, and my thoughts on Todd Hayne’s weirdo Dylan biopic (I use the term loosely), I’m Not There, after its New York festival press screening are preliminary: They’re based on my irritation in the first half and my gradual appreciation and excitement as the movie developed some momentum. Haynes grapples directly with the charge often raised against the singer-songwriter, beginning with his legendary abandonment of Woody Guthrie–ish acoustic folk and the near-riot in Newport, Rhode Island. It’s a charge that’s the subtext of Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, voiced over and over by those who knew him when: that nothing in Dylan is organic, but rather based on a series of calculating poses. Haynes makes the case — obliquely — that this is the source of Dylan’s genius.
I find that thesis brilliantly convincing; what I’m not sure of — not until I see the film again, anyway — is Haynes’s handling of all Dylan’s personae. Six different actors play him in seven stages: an African-American boy, Marcus Carl Franklin, as the Guthrie wannabe; Christian Bale as the star folkie; Ben Whishaw as the disciple of Rimbaud; Heath Ledger as the elusive ladies’ man and James Dean–like idol; Cate Blanchett as the gnomic, solipsistic anti-prophet with the curly hair and sunglasses; Bale again as the convert to Christianity; and Richard Gere as the Western loner and outlaw.
Haynes doesn’t tell stories; he deconstructs them and the social conventions in which they’re rooted. I’m Not There skips around among time periods and actors so much that you almost think, The movie’s not there, either. But that’s probably Haynes’s point, and I admire him unreservedly for attempting to devise an organic syntax to illustrate his subject’s restless odyssey. But some of the movie left me cold. The scenes that play are between Ledger and the vivid Charlotte Gainsbourg as his great love, and everything with Blanchett, whose style of impersonation has never seemed so queerly perfect. (It’s true that she often reminded me of Chuck Barris on The Gong Show, but that somehow fit, too.) Too bad the scenes with Gere as Dylan in his Billy the Kid/Peckinpah/“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” period are so much blander than what has preceded them.
I love Haynes’s other films, especially Safe and Velvet Goldmine, and saw him at work when I co-authored a book, Shooting to Kill, with his longtime producer Christine Vachon. That said, I’m a Freudian-oriented Jew, and he is pointedly anti-psychological. It’s telling that Haynes doesn’t show you the early Dylan, i.e., Robert Zimmerman (here called, oddly enough, “Edelstein”). That would require him to probe Dylan’s formative years and draw a more fluid line among the singer-songwriter’s “characters.”
I don’t often ask questions at NYFF press conferences because everyone sounds like an idiot, especially me
But I wish my old Voice colleague Jim Hoberman had deigned to recognize my hand. (He did call on a woman a couple of seats away, who asked Haynes, “Can you relay any amusing anecdotes about the actors from the set?” Uh, nope.) My question would have been as follows (but no so long-winded):
The way the Dylan folkies in the film react to his ‘betrayal’ of the Woody Guthrie–Pete Seeger acoustic tradition reminded me of how you [Haynes] in Velvet Goldmine characterize David Bowie's betrayal of glam and the spirit of Oscar Wilde. He’s an opportunistic hollow man who doesn’t care what his Ziggy Stardust image meant to people — adolescent gays and bisexuals — whom the movement liberated. The Bowie figure is so unsympathetic that in the end he’s even revealed to have had plastic surgery and allied himself with an Orwellian Fascist culture.
So why does Bowie’s shifting persona represent the ultimate sellout and Dylan’s the mark of a pure spirit?
Now, I could hazard an answer: that the difference is in the work itself, which, in Dylan’s case, continued to take him to new and strange and glorious places; that a pose can even be a higher form of authenticity. And let me add that the greatest artists are those who, like Dylan and, for that matter, Todd Haynes, are always in a dialogue with their own works: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
I e-mailed my question to Christine Vachon and hope Haynes will answer it. In the meantime, the sheer amount of great music in the film (Dylan originals, plus some excellent covers) has eased my disappointment over Dylan’s show last Sunday in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There was some fine playing (if not singing; Lord, have the cigarettes taken their toll), but little connection between the performer and the audience.
Related: The Ten Most Incomprehensible Bob Dylan Interviews of All Time [Vulture]